Surrounded by the white-clad students of her all-girls academy, Oprah Winfrey is glowing with pride. “I am one proud mama and for once I think I know what that feels like for real,” Winfrey said. “It feels like a real sense of accomplishment. It is a triumph indeed, considering where all these girls have come from.” The TV star had every reason to be jubilant: In 2007, she had hand-picked all these students as she established the $40 million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls to provide world-class high school education to underprivileged children from South Africa and teach them leadership skills. Five years later, the 71 graduates of the class of 2011 — all high-achieving young girls who had experienced poverty and personal trauma such as violence, molestation, or loss of a parent — have all been accepted to continue their studies at universities in South Africa and the United States. “When I look at them, I see where they’ve been, I see where they’ve come from. I know how hard it is to come up from nowhere and nothing and have almost no support and to have suffered not one or two but on average five, six traumas by the time you actually get in this school,” said Winfrey. “And now 100% of this class has been accepted into colleges, 10% going to the United States. I mean, that’s pretty incredible.” Before the graduation, the girls received intensive financial planning counseling and assistance to help them with life beyond the academy, school officials say. A mentoring program has also been put in place to offer them advice during university. Overall, the boarding school, which spans 52 acres in the small town of Henley-on-Klip near Johannesburg, accommodates 400 South African girls of any race, color or origin, aged 12 to 18.
The students are offered free tuition, uniforms and meals and have access to the academy’s state-of-the-art facilities, which include modern classrooms, computers labs, sport fields and a 10,000-volume library. “I’ve always believed in the girls,” she said. “I’ve known that no matter what we were going through, the girls were worth it — no matter what happened, the end of the day the girls, the investment in the girls, which is really an investment in the future leadership of this country.” “You want to change the world, you change a girl’s life,” she said. “What I intend to do now is … take that model and to use it in the world to change the lives of 250 million girls around the world who can’t get an education, who don’t have any asset other than their bodies to use, and therefore they’re sold for dowries, they’re sold off into slavery, they’re married at 11 and 12 years old.” “In the beginning, I think we had teachers who were like, ‘oh, the girls, they come here disadvantaged.’ So we’ve eliminated that word ‘disadvantaged,’ because disadvantaged allows other people to look at you like you have some kind of disease, and they lower their expectations for what you can be. “I said, ‘nobody has a disadvantaged brain. Nobody is here with a disadvantaged mind. Nobody has a disadvantaged spirit.’ ” For this “proud momma,” the possibilities are endless for her girls. “You were born in the year that apartheid ended in this country,” Winfrey tells her school’s students. “That means that you are a child of freedom. There is no bar.”